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Armored Car Strike Leaves Francs in Short Supply

May 20, 2000|From Times Wire Services

PARIS — A strike by armored car guards, now in its 11th day, is turning France into a cashless society.

Sales are down in small shops, waiters are losing out on tips, and beggars are deprived of the few coins they count on to survive.

With the normal flow of cash between banks and shops cut off, the small change and bank notes used for everyday purchases are becoming hard to find. Credit cards and checks often are the only way to pay for purchases.

Angered by a string of holdups that have left 11 security guards dead in the last five years, the armored car guards are demanding hazardous-duty pay of $208 a month and other benefits for what they insist is a high-risk job.

Representatives for the guards and their employers were to negotiate today with an arbitrator appointed by the government. Negotiations broke off Wednesday.

In cities around France, armored car guards held protests Friday. "Striking for a Salary of Fear" read a banner unfurled by several hundred guards in Paris. In suburban Nanterre, guards held a silent march in memory of a colleague who died last week after an attack.

The French train and metro systems announced Friday that they would accept checks for as little as five francs, about 68 cents--less than the eight-franc metro ticket.

Meanwhile, people in the capital, faced with empty automated teller machines, were scrambling for money. Many merchants were demanding exact change because their own supplies of bank notes were running low, and most lowered their limits for payment by check and credit card.

"Business for us is down by at least 50%. It's a disaster," said Jean-Paul, an assistant at the Soguisa fishmongers in Paris' bustling Rue de Montorgueil.

"Customers feel embarrassed about buying a fish for 15 francs [$2.00] with their credit cards. They are going to supermarkets and doing all their shopping there."

Debit cards with "smart chips" are widely used in France but normally only for purchases of 100 francs or more.

A waitress at a bar on Rue du Faubourg Temple said she was starting to feel the pinch. "Hardly anyone is leaving us tips anymore. Everyone seems to be holding on to their coins," Diane said.

At the bottom of the money chain, Paris' homeless beggars also were struggling. "I know you haven't got much money on you, but please give me whatever you can spare," said a young man in search of handouts.

Many people appeared to be hoarding what is left of their cash for emergencies, while others were tramping the streets in search of a cash dispenser that worked. Some banks reported that up to 80% of their ATMs were empty.

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